jump to navigation

Desperate Men: 490 BC June 17, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

The Battle of Marathon is one of those events that has been so polished by historians and lyricists that it has become a mirror held up to every age which has cared to look into it. But behind the bumph and the pumph there remains a very real mystery. How did a (then) obscure Greek city, whose militia was outnumbered and out-trained, humiliate perhaps the greatest army in Euro-Asia at that date? Herodotus gets this across perfectly by observing the Athenian charge from the Persian side: after a stand off of several days, the Athenians had decided to attack the Persians over the sands of Marathon.

The lines were drawn up, and the sacrifices were favorable; so the Athenians were permitted to charge, and they advanced on the Persians at a run. There was not less than eight stades in the no man’s-land between the two armies. The Persians, seeing them coming at a run, made ready to receive them; but they believed that the Athenians were possessed by some very desperate madness, seeing their small numbers and their running to meet their enemies without support of cavalry or archers. That was what the barbarians thought; but the Athenians, when they came to hand-to-hand fighting, fought right worthily. They were the first Greeks we know of to charge their enemy at a run and the first to face the sight of the Median dress and the men who wore it. For till then the Greeks were terrified even to hear the names of the Medes.

Herodotus then gets into the details of the fight. From his sources and informants we learn that the Persians broke the Athenian charge in the centre, but that on the flanks – where ancient battles were so often decided – the Athenians triumphed and turned on the heart of the Persian army.

The first question is to understand just how great the miracle, in other words how large the armies were. The Athenian army with their Plataean allies almost certainly numbered around ten thousand. The difficulty is the size of the Persian forces. Ancient estimates run from 200,000 to 600,000: Plato living three generations later talked of half a million. Modern estimates give anything between 20,000 and 100,000. Our only ‘hard’ data is that 600 triremes brought the Persians to Athenian territory and that 6400 Persian bodies were pulled off the battlefield. So again the question, this time with more urgency: what gave the Athenians the edge?

The romantic answer is that these were desperate men and that desperate men are capable of the impossible. But the more level-headed answer is battleground dress. Herodotus tells us that the losses of both sides were: 6400 Persian dead and 192 Athenians. And 1890 excavations at the ‘Tomb’ of Marathon (pictured) suggests that 192 is credible: note that the discovered remains were cremated so estimates are very approximate! The best way to explain this kind of discrepancy is by deducing that Athenian armour protected the Greeks from the Persians’ missiles, while the leather cuirasses of the Persians proved hopelessly inadequate against Athenian spears. Any other suggestions: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Still, if this is the best explanation available it is important to remember that the Athenians lacked the knowledge or at least the certainty of their superiority when they charged. For behind the battleground advantages there stands the sheer nerve of the Athenian decision not only to fight but to charge a larger army with a reputation that would have turned most opponents’ guts to water. The Persians had never fought the hoplites of the (mainland) city states, and the Athenians had never met the Persians in battle. These differences would have remained theoretical up until that sickening moment when, sometimes, in the late summer of 490, the whooping Athenians met the braced Persian line.

Faulkner has a wonderful passage where he describes how every southern boy ‘fourteen year old’ has, as his birth right, the battle lines of the Confederacy before Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. In the same way, anyone who has dwelt in a free and democratic society or who has aspirations to do so has, as their birth right, the Athenian battle council before Marathon. Herodotus’ account is fictionalised, but it carries across the centuries the audacity of the Athenian decision to walk, jog and then sprint at Darius’ ‘immortal’ battle-lines.

Now the opinions of the generals of the Athenians were divided, and the one party urged that they should not fight a battle, seeing that they were too few to fight with the army of the Medes, while the others, and among them Miltiades, advised that they should do so: and when they were divided and the worse opinion was like to prevail, then, since he who had been chosen by lot to be polemarch of the Athenians had a vote in addition to the ten (for in old times the Athenians gave the polemarch an equal vote with the generals) and at that time the polemarch was Callimachos of the deme of Aphidnai, to him came Miltiades and said as follows: ‘With thee now it rests, Callimachos, either to bring Athens under slavery, or by making her free to leave behind thee for all the time that men shall live a memorial such as not even Harmodios and Aristogeiton have left. For now the Athenians have come to a danger the greatest to which they have ever come since they were a people; and on the one hand, if they submit to the Medes, it is determined what they shall suffer, being delivered over to Hippias [erstwhile Persian-sponsored dictator of Athens], while on the other hand, if this city shall gain the victory, it may become the first of the cities of Hellas. How this may happen and how it comes to thee of all men to have the decision of these matters, I am now about to tell. Of us the generals, who are ten in number, the opinions are divided, the one party urging that we fight a battle and the others that we do not fight. Now if we do not, I expect that some great spirit of discord will fall upon the minds of the Athenians and so shake them that they shall go over to the Medes; but if we fight a battle before any unsoundness appear in any part of the Athenian people, then we are able to gain the victory in the fight, if the gods grant equal conditions. These things then all belong to thee and depend on thee; for if thou attach thyself to my opinions, thou hast both a fatherland which is free and a native city which shall be the first among the cities of Hellas; but if thou choose the opinion of those who are earnest against fighting, thou shalt have the opposite of those good things of which I told thee’.